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Morning sunlight shone through the treetops, speckling the ground with broken light and warming it from the previous evening. Birds chirped, filling the air with their song while the occasional squirrel or stoat made its way through the foliage. It was in the branches of a tree that Misha sat perched, hidden amongst the green and brown colors, lying in wait for something. For hours she had waited, frozen in place, lest any errant movements give her position away. She had been there since before the first lights of dawn, waiting for her quarry.

It was from her position in the treetops that she could get an unobstructed view of the small patch of land in the forest clearing below. The land had been fenced off with rope and simple wooden stakes that acted as fence posts, creating a moderately sized garden of berry bushes and patches of various medicinal herbs. To most, it may have been little more than that, a garden albeit a large one. But to Misha and her people, it would be an important source of food that would help to feed her village for the upcoming harvest season and winter following it.

The mousefolk of the Orchard Forest lived up to their name in appearance, looking like a mouse that stood upright at less than half the height of any adult human and had learned to use their hands for holding tools. Misha was no exception to this—and in fact, served as a ‘typical’ example of what the people of her village looked like, with short brown fur that helped her to blend in well to the forest’s surroundings. She’d stayed in her hiding spot for long enough that her muscles had cramped up, screaming to move. Yet, her time and her patience finally paid off it seemed, as she spotted something unusual emerge from the foliage on the ground and into the fenced-off garden.

Crawling forward at a cautious pace was a reptilian creature, its body low to the ground and resembling a snake with clawed limbs. The beast was roughly the size of a bobcat, and its face held feline features as well. Misha recognized the creature as a tatzel wurm, usually native to the mountains north of the forest. Despite that, it was not unheard of to spot such a creature in the forest when food was scarce in the mountains, feeding instead on the many colorful fruits that gave the Orchard Forest its name. Despite the animal’s carnivorous looks, Misha knew enough to understand they were, in fact, omnivores. The tatzel wurm, not noticing any threats, climbed through the ropes of the garden's fencing and began to root its snout through a berry bush for a meal.

Though the creature’s only sin was seeking food, it had been tearing through the village's gardens and farm plots regularly and disregarding the herbs and chimes the mousefolk had set up to ward off pests. Misha knew she could not allow it to continue pillaging her village’s food supply if they were to make it through the winter. Taking a slow, steady breath, she lifted the bow she held in one hand and knocked an arrow to it. She drew the string with her other hand with a swift motion before setting loose the arrow. It flew, piercing the side of the creature’s neck. The tatzel wurm let out a single strangled noise that was cut short as it fell to the ground and ceased moving.

Misha waited for some time in the tree, making sure there were no other signs of movement. Tatzel wurms were typically solitary creatures, but the possibility of a mate was not out of the question. When nothing else stirred and she was content that the area was clear, she finally allowed herself to stretch and climb down from the tree, the nails of her hands and feet allowing her to scale easily down the tree’s bark. Once she reached the ground, dusting a few stray leaves off of her leather guard’s vest and the green cloak she wore, she took cautious steps towards the tatzel wurm’s corpse until she was close enough to inspect it. Save for the arrow wound, the creature’s body was in fine shape with no other injuries. It had likely made itself comfortable in the forest’s outer areas, where most animals were small and would not be capable of competing with it for food. It occurred to Misha that the body would serve as a fine source of jerky for the village once the head and venom glands were removed. Carrying it back on her own would be difficult, though, given that the beast was roughly her own size.

She grabbed a coil of rope from her belt, gauging if it had enough length to fashion it in some manner that could help pull the creature after her. Yet just as she did, a sound interrupted her. A pained scream echoed out through the forest, several birds flying away in surprise.

She immediately turned her attention toward the sound, her ears easily able to pinpoint its origins. The tatzel wurm would have to wait, and with no hesitation, Misha broke into a sprint across the forest floor, dropping onto all four limbs to gain a steadier footing as she did. Leaping over roots and rocks in the familiar territory of her home, she saw just enough of a part in the trees up ahead to spot the source of the pained cries.

Not far ahead, Misha saw a large, grey-furred wolf facing away from her. The animal was snarling and bearing down on something it had pinned down with its wide paw—a red-haired human was trapped, with the paw pressing down on their chest, a large gash in their shoulder bleeding profusely as they struggled to push the wolf off of themselves.

Knowing there was no time to waste, Misha drew an arrow to her bow, taking quick aim and firing. The wolf seemed far more aware of her presence than the tatzel wurm had been and moved with great speed to sidestep the arrow. It was not enough, however, as the arrowhead still connected with the wolf’s hindquarters, embedding into its thigh and causing it to let out a pained yelp as it stumbled back a step.

The wolf turned its gaze on Misha, still growling as it did, fur standing on end. Misha drew another arrow, standing her ground and taking aim once more. She knew she had to aim her next shot quickly or the animal that stared back at her would overwhelm her in an instant. Just before she released the arrow, however, the wolf turned and leaped into the nearby bushes despite its injuries. The arrow succeeded only in landing in the trunk of a tree.

It pained Misha both to strike down an animal, as well as to wound it and leave it to suffer, but she could not leave someone to die and did not have the time to chase after the wolf. She hurried to the side of the human on the ground, who was gripping at their shoulder in pain, but still appeared to be conscious.

“Here, let me help,” Misha said. She reached into the pouch on her belt and produced a handful of dried leaves.

The human, struggling to push themselves up with their one good arm to sit upright, took a moment to glance down at Misha and mumbled, “Leaves? Is that what the mousefolk use as first aid?” The voice was strained with pain, but as best as Misha could tell, it was that of a male. Or so she assumed, at any rate, her limited experience with humans leaving her uncertain of how to tell the difference between genders at a glance.

He was a man of slim build with bright green eyes and clothing of notably unfamiliar design. The outfit he wore included a torn but otherwise well-fitted coat with more extravagant detail than the clothing Misha saw in her daily life. On the ground, only a short distance away, lay a bag of now-scattered supplies which must have been tossed aside during the struggle, though the durable travel backpack hardly matched the refined clothing this man wore. Misha noticed the human’s ears were pointed, only barely hidden by his hair. Was that normal for humans? She was having difficulty remembering.

“They’re leaves from elthorne trees, they’ll help to staunch the bleeding quickly,” Misha said, stepping forward and pressing the leaves against the man’s wounded shoulder. He inhaled sharply and flinched, no doubt still in pain from the fresh injury, but said nothing else about it. He used his free hand to hold the leaves in place while Misha continued, “Do you have any other injuries? I can look if need be.”

“No, that’s fine,” the man answered, taking a deep breath and gaining more of a composed attitude now that the immediate danger had passed. “I appreciate the assistance, but I will be alright from here.”

“That’s good, can you stand?”

“Yes, I think so.” It took him a few moments to get up from the ground, and Misha stood by in case the man needed her help, but he managed to stand on his own, albeit somewhat shakily.

“Easy, be careful,” Misha urged. “Here, I’ll walk you back to my village.”

“What? No, that’s alright, I’ll be fine. I have to be on my way.”

“What do you mean?” Misha tilted her head, looking up at the human. “You can’t be serious after suffering an injury like that, you’ll either die of blood loss if you’re lucky or of infection if you’re not. We’ll have supplies to better treat and bandage you up there.”

“It’s not as bad as it seems, I assure you.” There was a tone in the man's voice that sounded like restrained impatience, and as if he expected that excuse to mean anything, he turned to walk away and begin collecting his belongings on the ground before Misha ran towards him and grabbed onto the leg of his pants.

“Don’t be ridiculous! Whatever you need to be doing, running off while you're injured will not be worth it. I’m Misha, I’m a guard from the village. I’ll introduce you to our doctor and he’ll have you patched up in no time.”

The human sighed and looked back down at Misha, finally understanding that she would not be backing down. “Fine. My name is Veldin. I’ll stay long enough to be looked over by your doctor, and then I will be on my way.”

Misha nodded. “That’s good enough for me, then. Come on, I’ll lead the way.”

---

Misha stood at attention in the circular wooden building that served as the village guards’ base of operations. It was a simple structure, primarily serving as a meeting room with an additional room for supplies in the back. At the large desk,—large for mousefolk standards at any rate—sat the guard captain Wrent himself. He had listened intently to Misha’s words as she had spoken, waiting until after she had finished giving her report before saying anything himself.

“This human—his name is Veldin, yes? Is he with our doctor now?”

“Yes,” Misha answered. “From what I could tell, it likely isn’t too severe of an injury in the long term, but he wouldn’t be able to defend himself as easily if something else were to come after him.”

“Speaking of which,” Wrent began, “by what means did he travel here, to begin with?”

“Oh, I didn’t even think of… I mean, I think he came here by foot, sir.”

“I had thought that might be the case from what you said. And he was alone.”

“Yes, that’s… that’s right.” Misha was catching on to what Wrent was likely getting at—the few people who passed by the area traveled by wagon if they were stopping at the forest’s outskirts, or with guards if they were going to travel deeper. “I did not see any form of weapon on him either, come to think of it… Do you think this could be a problem?”

“Hm. I doubt its anything serious to worry about, I merely found it odd for him to be traveling on his own. But you have good instincts in an urgent matter—ensuring his safety first is a good priority. There is no need to dwell on that for the moment, at least not in your case. Misha, I thank you very much for your efforts today. You’ve done well.”

“I…” Misha’s ears perked up, alert in response to the praise. “Thank you, Fath—I—I mean, Sir!” Misha cringed at her own mistake.

Wrent on the other hand responded with a lighthearted chuckle. “Easy on the sentimentality, Misha. I’m proud of you as my daughter just as much as one of our recruits, but while you wear that vest, you are first and foremost a guard of this village. Though, I believe it’s about time you took the evening for yourself and allow the night patrol to take over.”

Misha straightened her posture and gave a firm nod. “Yes, Sir. Understood.”

Stepping out into the evening air, the village taking on quieter colors with the sun almost set, Misha held onto those words of praise her father had given her. They had filled her with joy to hear, yet something held her back from truly accepting them. She thought for a moment, staring at the ground as she walked. She shook her head to clear away that concern as she made her way across the village to the carpenter’s workshop.

---

“So, Father said you did well, then?”

Hearing the question, Misha looked up from the tea mug in her small hands to turn her attention to Mikhail. As usual, he had kept his gaze focused on his work—a large, sturdy oak branch laid out on the worktable before him. His whiskers twitched as he stepped around the table to examine the branch from different angles, and they caught on the bark of the lumber.

“Well, yes.” Misha sat on a small stool at the other end of the table, taking a sip of honey lemon tea from the mug while her brother worked. Though perhaps saying he was preparing to work would have been more accurate. Preparation and examination of materials was always its own entire step with Mikhail, more so than for most people.

“That’s good,” Mikhail said. “So, what’s bothering you, then?”

“What? Nothing’s bothering me.” Misha shook her head with forced enthusiasm.

“Then why have you been so quiet?”

“You’re imagining things,” Misha waved a hand dismissively.

“I am most certainly not. You’ve just been staring at your drink this whole time. This was your first proper patrol, and you solved an upcoming food crisis, I would have thought that you’d be yelling and hugging me the entire time you told me everything.”

Misha sighed, wondering how Mikhail could be so perceptive when his face was always buried in his work. “It was a tatzel wurm, not an entire food crisis... I just can’t help but think that Father’s praise should be expected. I’m his daughter, wouldn’t it be normal for him to say I’m doing well?”

Mikhail tilted his head to the side. “You think he’s playing favorites you mean?”

Hearing it stated so plainly, Misha couldn’t help but feel a hint of guilt at thinking such a thing, but nodded. “It makes sense.”

Mikhail looked up from the branch, making eye contact with Misha for the first time since she’d stepped foot through the workshop entrance. “I don’t think you realize that you actually do good work. Did you consider that might be the reason he praised you?”

“Well, of course, I considered that, but…”

But? Misha, I’m your brother, I am in a unique position to judge you more harshly than other people and get away with it. Take it from me when I tell you you’re doing fine.”

Mikhail’s words had a surprising forcefulness to them that caught Misha off guard. “I, well… Yes, you’re right. I shouldn’t be overthinking this.”

“Good.” Mikhail turned his attention back to his tools and his worktable, finally setting to work shaving down the wooden branch. “You shouldn’t be making up things to worry yourself over.”

“Right…” Misha pushed herself off her seat and placed her tea mug down on a spare bit of counter space to the side of the room. “What are you making, anyway?”

“A chair for the library.”

“To replace the one that Owain broke?”

“Yes.”

Misha stared at the branch for a moment. “How are you going to shape a chair out of that?”

Mikhail stopped in place solely to turn his gaze to Misha, staring at her, then returned to the worktable and mumbled, “Chairs have legs, dearest sister of mine.”

“Ah.” Misha leaned back against the counter space and crossed her arms. “Still, watch your tone. Otherwise, I might just tell Nera you’re being rude to me.”

“Nera knows I’m always rude to you, that’s nothing new.”

Misha responded with an exaggerated “Hmph,” then headed for the door. “That said, though, I’m going to see what the rest of the day patrol are doing for the evening. I’ll stop by the library on the way there and say hi to Nera for you.”

Mikhail said nothing, seemingly back to being engrossed in his work. Misha, however, recognized it as her brother's way of trying to dodge the subject. Misha held back a chuckle to herself and stepped out of the workshop into the cool evening air.

The library stood tall as ever at the village’s edge, standing out as one of the few buildings that had or needed a second floor. Despite Misha’s teasing of Mikhail, she had truly wanted to make a stop here. The peaceful quiet was a comfortable atmosphere to enjoy, even if Misha wasn’t one for literature.

Misha pushed open the door, finding it unlocked as usual. She was unsurprised to spot Nera, the library’s white-furred caretaker, tidying up a stack of books at one of the tables. More surprising, however, was a familiar face from earlier in the day. Veldin sat at the back wall of the library, numerous books scattered across the table he occupied. He was seated directly on the floor on account of the low height of the table and chairs—and even the ceiling—compared to the human’s height. The sight of it was somewhat amusing, and Misha had to duck outside from the library doorway to laugh before stepping inside.

"Oh, Misha!” Nera greeted in her usual soft tone, her bright red eyes sparkling with joy to have a guest in the library. Nera’s appearance had always stood out from the brown and grey coats of the other mousefolk, even if her personality did not want to. Something to do with her heritage coming from city-dwelling families from what Misha understood.

With Nera’s greeting breaking the silence of the library, or more accurately just bending it given that Nera’s gentle voice could never be considered loud, Misha noticed Veldin glance at the pair for just a moment before turning his attention back to the books on the table before him.

“Good evening, Nera,” Misha said, letting the door shut gently behind her. “I thought I’d stop by and see how everything is.”

“Quite well,” Nera answered. “I was just helping Veldin find some books.”

Misha walked to Veldin’s table, leaning over it to peer at the stack of books. It seemed to be a mixture that had been amassed with some being tomes of lore and legends, others appearing to be encyclopedias of various flora, and yet more topics scattered amidst them. “Well, I take it you two are acquainted, then?”

“She’s been helpful,” Veldin answered without looking up from the books. Never had someone Misha barely knew so quickly and thoroughly reminded her of her brother.

“That’s nice. You were supposed to be having your wounds treated at the infirmary.”

Veldin pulled the collar of his shirt and coat—cleaned as best as they would be with holes from the wolf’s teeth now sewn shut, Misha noted—aside just enough to reveal bandages visible over his shoulder.

“And, I would imagine, resting,” Misha leaned further across the table, stretching her short arms out as far as she could over the book Veldin was reading.

“I’m fine,” Veldin said undaunted, refusing still to tear his eyes away from the book. He instead placed a hand over Misha’s face, pushing her back from the table. Misha had forgotten her natural disadvantage in the form of height, weight, and general muscle mass and was forced back out of the way with little effort on Veldin’s part.

Frustrated and tired of conversations with people who refused anything remotely close to eye contact, Misha gave up and directed herself back to Nera. “What’s so important that he won’t be a good patient and lie down somewhere nice?”

“Oh, well,” Nera looked over at Veldin for confirmation. “Is it alright if I explain?”

“Do as you like,” Veldin said.

Nera nodded. “He said there’s something he was looking for. Part of a Dragon’s scale.”

Misha had to take a moment to understand what Nera had just said. No Dragon scales had ever been known to exist in the Orchard Forest. None of the Dragons even frequented the area, not even Emerald, who often visited the Emerald Plains to the south that had been named after her. “I don’t understand, what would you expect to find here? There are no Dragons here.”

“Normally, yes,” Nera continued. “But apparently something… happened recently.”

Misha tilted her head. “Something?”

Nera looked thoughtful for a moment. “I don’t completely understand either, to be honest.”

“I currently lack the full details as to what exactly happened,” Veldin elaborated, finally taking part in the conversation. “However, something has caused a scale from Opal to shatter. When the scale was shattered, the individual pieces of it fled to different locations. In theory, one such location is the Orchard Forest.”

Misha was still having difficulty fully understanding. Something scattered a Dragon's scale. Was that a common occurrence, were scales seen frequently outside of the Orchard Forest? She had the vague sense that she did not fully understand what that meant, but it was the last of Veldin's comments that she questioned most. “What do you mean when you say they fled?”

“The Dragons are powerful creatures, given that they shaped the world as we know it, yes?” Veldin’s tone was that of someone who had little patience for this explanation, like someone explaining an obvious concept to a child—or a fool. “You should expect that their power is not just limited to themselves, but also extends to their scales. There is a phenomenon in which a Dragon’s scale can change locations in certain circumstances—disappearing from one place and reappearing elsewhere.”

Misha chose to disregard Veldin’s tone and skip to the key point. “So, the scale did that when it shattered?”

“Or tried to. Each separate shard seems to have ended up in a different location. I spoke to several other guards who knew nothing, and so I am looking into the lore and nature of this area in the hopes of determining a likely location that the nearest shard may have tried to escape to. Is that a satisfactory explanation for you?”

“Well, I suppose that does sound important, but that’s nothing so urgent that you can’t sit still for a day or two to recover from your injuries.”

Veldin sighed and finally looked at Misha. “Yes, it is. There’s more to it than just that—whatever shattered the scale seems to have also corrupted it.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that Opal is known as the Dragon of life and purity. Her powers can heal others and purge evil. However, the source of the scale’s shattering was powerful enough to overwhelm that power in the scale and has caused…” Veldin paused as if trying to find the words. “Side effects. From what I have observed, the scale is still attempting to ‘heal’ creatures nearby but is instead mutating them.”

Misha had no comment to make and was now listening intently to Veldin’s explanation. Nera had stepped aside, tidying up some books that had fallen over on the table while the human continued.

“Naturally, it won’t do to leave these shards to spread this mutating corruption to all life in their vicinity, so I’ve been seeking them out in order to stop that from happening.”

Misha was still silent at first, allowing Veldin to return to the book in front of himself while she thought over what he’d said. After some moments, Misha felt she understood the situation well enough and said, “Let me help.”

Veldin blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“The Orchard Forest is my home, and you’re injured. If something is happening in the forest, it’s my job to do something about that. It’s the job of all guards to protect the people here.”

“I appreciate the offer, Misha, but I honestly don’t need the assistance. I’ve already dealt with another shard elsewhere before coming here, I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you know where to look for this one, then?”

Veldin was silent. His expression seemed irritated, but Misha ignored that and continued, “The forest is big, you can’t wander off without any leads. You can stay here while you rest, and I’ll get the other guards to help look for any signs of mutations in the forest.”

Veldin looked ready to argue back, but paused and then nodded. “Fine, very well. I suppose I must admit that you make a good point.”

“Don’t I? You won’t have to worry, Veldin. If something’s happening in the area, we’ll be the first ones to know.”

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Mai Starberries

Bio: I write things and stuff.

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